On Saturday 17 September 2011 I journeyed to London by train from Brentford where I was staying with my dearest friend H____. The night before she married her longtime beau A____ in a gorgeous, intimate and heartfelt wedding in which I officiated; I even got to wear a fab black robe with bishop sleeves and black velvet trim for the occasion. The night ended at about 3am after a long day of setting up the venue (I did the gigantic, rockin’ floral arrangements for the tables of large berry branches, oak leaves and a purplish/brown leaf which was similar to eucalyptus), a night of good feelings, good food, good music and good love.
The next day I slept in a bit, but no rest for the weary, I went into London to go to the National Gallery. I had not been there since the summer of 1987, nor had I visited the museum when I was in London in the spring of 2010. (Check out my other posts about the 2010 trip here, here, here, here and here.)
When I was living in London in the summer of 1987, I was an intern at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a small museum filled with gorgeous 17th and 18th century paintings. I did research for the museum on an upcoming exhibition on Gainsborough which took me all over London. Between moments of research and wearing white gloves while examining 18th century documents, I would always stop in the National Gallery for 15 or 20 minutes if I was close by. Mostly, I always went to look at one painting, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, Salon of 1834. (See my posts about this captivating work here and here.) After my brief viewing, I was then back to my research.
When I returned to the National Gallery on 17 September, I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and quality of the National Gallery collection. I was dizzy and swooning amongst all these delicious creations in paint. Here are six works that particularly made me stop and look intently. They “grabbed me by the throat” as the art historian Simon Schama would say.
1. Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1635-1639, oil on canvas, 152 x 99 cm.
In a shallow, dimly lit space Zurbarán depicts Saint Francis on his knees, hands clasped holding a skull, wearing the hooded robe of a Capuchin monk, his face in shadow, lips parted, seemingly looking up to heaven. It is a silent painting of religious devotion and contemplation, but it is also an earthly meditation on the nature of painting itself. How does one convincingly represent form, light, space on a 2 dimensional surface in the medium of paint?
The figure of Saint Francis is extremely plastic, well-modeled in light and shadow. He firmly occupies the quiet space of the work and seems almost able to enter our own realm outside the painting. His lips are parted slightly as if he is about to speak or perhaps he has heard God himself? Indeed, his right hand bears the stigmata of Christ.
This painting stopped me and “grabbed me by the throat” with its silent, simple depiction of devotion, faith, thought. As a viewer, I am a voyeur to the saint’s private act of prayer. Through my gaze I join him in the mystery of faith regardless of my own non-religious life. I feel his devotion. I meditate on it- this amorphous, unknowable, unquantifiable thing in contrast to the naturalistic, “worldly” rendering of the figure in all his physicalness, in all his solidity as if I could reach out and touch him.
Meditation on God becomes a rumination on the nature of representation and the rendering of paint. The spiritual and the natural combine and produce a powerfully evocative work of art.
2. Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart by Anthony van Dyck, circa 1638, oil on canvas, 237.5 x 146 cm.
The two brothers stand before us, Lord John on the left looks off into the distance while his brother Lord Bernard stares out at the viewer. They both have a look of smug arrogance, displaying their station in life for all to see, not only by having a large, full length portrait of themselves painted by a significant and famous artist, but also in their clothes and elegant poses. Van Dyck delights in the rendering of their costumes, in the opulence and richness of the fabric, the satin and leather and the trims of lace which adorn them and set them apart from the rest of us. Look at their magnificent shoes!
Also, notice the elegant placement and graceful rendering of the brother’s hands. The beautiful depiction of the hands which is always a Van Dyck signature confirms and exhibits their good breeding and their noble family history. All of these features combine, so that the brothers seem to be saying to the viewer, “Aren’t we fabulous?” and “We are glad that we are not you.”
Yet, when one reads the wall plaque accompanying this work, one learns that the 2 brothers supported King Charles I in the English Civil War and lost their lives in the conflict because of it. Suddenly, they are no longer smug, but simply dead or perhaps their death resulted from the very arrogance on display that also caused King Charles I to lose his head.
3. Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich, circa 1811, oil on canvas, 32.5 x 45 cm.
Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich is a small jewel of a painting that I would have loved to slip into my bag for my drawing room. In a beautifully rendered snowy scene, a man has thrown down his crutches and is praying at a roadside wooden crucifix seemingly asking for help with his earthly affliction.
In the left background a hallucinatory church emerges in the snow and mist. It is a promise of everlasting salvation, no matter one’s lot in the physical world. But, is it real or a vision?
The center of the composition is dominated by gigantic, majestic pine trees, still green despite the winter. The work seems to convey the beauty and pain of the natural world and how we can all be solitary, lonely figures on earth like the man with the crutches praying to the crucifix. The promise of salvation, of redemption, of heaven (represented by the church) is there to greet us all upon our death and take away all of our pain and surround and enmesh us in a beauty greater than the material world, here evoked by the pine trees. Winter Landscape is a deeply moving work, seemingly simple, more than just the depiction of nature, but a meditation on the meaning of life.
4. Portrait of a Young Man by Titian, circa 1515-1520, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 cm.
This painting by Titian is a bit of a gratuitous choice. I was drawn to this work not merely because of Titian’s ability to deliciously render fabrics and textures in paint along with his beautiful sense of coloring, light and shadow- just look at his ability to render the black silk of the sitter’s costume- but because I thought the subject was dead sexy. He has a strong nose and jaw and along with his hair his overall appearance could be that of a 21st century hipster if it were not for his 16th century fashion.
He looks contemplative as he stares out at what we don’t know. This far away gaze makes him more appealing to me and allows me to visibly apprehend him without him catching me looking. I can admire his beauty and his rockin’ threads.
Also, there is something decidedly sexual about his one ungloved right hand. He holds the right hand glove in his left hand that rests on the parapet which separates his world from mine. All that is visible on the right hand is the thumb that emerges strikingly from the folds of black silk fabric. For me the ungloved, luminous thumb appearing out of the “darkness” is a displacement of the young gentlemen’s penis. The portrait changes from contemplative to sexual to masturbation to exhibitionism. Or is it just me? I have always had this notion that the shape and appearance of a man’s thumb corresponds to some degree to the shape and appearance of his penis. So, perhaps when I look at this painting, my understanding of it is predetermined. No, I don’t think so. It is an erotic and sexual image and it all resides in that thumb.
5. Two Boys Blowing Bubbles by Caspar Netscher. circa 1670. oil on oak, 31 x 24 cm.
This 17th century Dutch painting is a small jewel. I would have it on my wall in a dead second. It has a gorgeous, glossy enamel finish, a licked surface, and the subject is sweet and endearing without being saccharine. Two boys are blowing bubbles an ageless, simple pastime that children still enjoy today. (My goddaughter loves blowing bubbles.) The boy in the foreground has removed his hat and is about to pop the bubble that floats serenely in the upper left of the painting. His companion in the right background is getting ready to blow another bubble.
As with much Dutch painting. this work is not simply a genre scene of childhood play, but a vanitas. The fragility of the bubble, its short existence, is a symbol of the transience of human life and the futility of worldly possessions such as the items on the right of the parapet, a silver dish and rare, exotic shells.
It has always fascinated how a society so capitalistic and mercantile like Dutch society in the 16th and 17th centuries also felt so guilty about its materialism and had to continually produce images that reminded everyone how all this worldly stuff meant shit and that in the end you were just going to be dust. You cannot take it with you.
The underlying vanitas goal of the painting helps to contain its sentimentality, so that it does not becoming cloying. It prevents a toothache. In the end, Netscher produces a magnificent work both grave and touching. It reminds us of the simple joys of childhood as well as the fragile nature of life in a luscious rendering of paint.
6. Interior by Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1899, oil on canvas, 64 x58 cm.
Before seeing this painting I was not familiar with the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi. Interior is an arresting work overflowing with mystery and psychological tension. In a closed, sparse interior, a dining room, (there is no way out; the doors are closed, there are no windows) a woman stands with her back to the viewer. She refuses our gaze, ignores our presence and rejects her position as an object to be visually apprehended.
But what is narrative or subject of this painting? Is she waiting for someone? Is it a scene of quiet domesticity or domestic frustration? Has there just been an argument and now she is left alone in the dining room in its aftermath? Is she going crazy? This polysemy and lack of closure is testament to the work’s modernity and evokes the isolation, mental and otherwise, that seems to plaque all of us in the modern, capitalist world and continues to grow with the advancement of technology and its effacement of the body.
Hammershøi painted the interior of this house depicted here more than sixty times- sometimes just empty rooms or sometimes with his wife either from the back or in profile reading a letter or book. Interior is a contemplative work on one hand, but also on the other an obsession, a madness as if the artist continually depicted the interior of his house and his wife to figure out something that continually alluded his grasp.
So, if you are ever in London, run to the National Gallery and delight in its myriad of visual treasures.